Cultivating Safe and Trusting Classrooms

4 Nov 2022 1:05 PM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

By: Lisa Bettencourt

As an eighth grade teacher, I am always sad when May arrives. While I look forward to time off to rest and rejuvenate, it is with a heavy heart that I say goodbye to my students who I have grown to know and love. As the new school year rolls around, I get excited to meet my next group of students. I look forward to learning about who they are, where their interests lie, what their beliefs and values are- really, anything that gives me insight and understanding into these unique individuals. There are some years when all the pieces fall into place- when you bond well with your students and you feel like the kids were handpicked for you. And then there are the other years… The years when you go home exhausted every day. When you doubt your ability to survive the year. When you question why the counselor chose to give YOU all the boys who lack impulse control! Inevitably, we push through and are often surprised to see that those students who were the most difficult in the beginning of the year, end up being the ones you have grown closest to- the ones you will miss the most. However, getting there requires some work. How do we build those safe and trusting relationships with our students? How do we let them know that not only are they heard, but we value their input and perspective? How do we create a classroom environment where all students feel supported and included?

We have all heard counselors and administrators speak to the importance of building relationships with students, however, what does that really mean? Of course we have relationships with our kids, but are we connecting with them? Do our students feel like we care about them? About their academics as well as their social and emotional health? The beauty about being a Language Arts teacher is the ease in which we can use stories to relate to kids, whether these are published literature or our own personal stories. When our students see us being honest and vulnerable, we become someone they can relate to, and hopefully, trust. While I am constantly changing and improving my lessons, “I Wish My Teacher Knew” is one I do at the beginning of every year. This is a great opportunity to allow your students a safe place to share what they want you to know about them. Every year I am surprised by how much students are willing to disclose after only knowing me for a week. Though this lesson on its own is a powerful way to start bonding with your students, it’s the personal feedback you leave that shows kids you took the time to read and learn about them- that you truly care. 

In middle school, kids work so hard to fit in- from wearing the right clothing to having the latest phone. The fear of failing in front of their peers, or being made fun of, often holds students back from participating in class discussions. Ideally, we want to create a classroom where students feel comfortable sharing ideas- where they feel like their voice is not only heard, but matters. Using texts with diverse authors helps ensure that we are providing all students with opportunities to relate to stories similar to their own. Analyzing stories and novels is a great place to start encouraging students to be brave and take risks- to share their perspective. While it is easy to acknowledge the child who always has their hand up, it is important to find ways to reach even the quietest of students. This year I started doing ‘Daily Dedications’. The students take turns dedicating class to someone who has been inspirational in their life. While the majority of my class have been excited to participate, I have a few who aren’t quite comfortable with getting up and speaking in front of the class. One such kiddo really wants to dedicate the class to her brother, but is too nervous to present. She asked, instead, if she could make a video to show. This student was telling me that she wanted to participate, but speaking in front of the class was a risk she wasn’t ready to take. Hopefully, accepting the way in which she was able to participate will build her confidence and make her feel like our classroom is a safe place where she can take risks and contribute more in class.  

How do we know that we are building safe, trusting environments? That our kids feel comfortable taking risks and feel like they belong? Sometimes you just know. There are the kids who do not want to leave your class- who linger and talk to you, or the group of students who start eating lunch in your room every day. However, sometimes you don’t know the impact you made until years later when you receive an email from a student who shares that your class was their favorite. And sometimes you run into an old student at the Dairy Queen drive-thru window, and they lean their head out and ask if you remember them, which you of course do, because they were the kid you worried about- the kid who you worked so hard to make sure passed your class. He then proudly declares he’s in college and is doing great. He thanks you for believing in him- for giving him a place where he felt safe to try, a place where he felt heard- and it’s all you can do to choke back your tears and nod your head in gratitude. 

Those are the moments that validate the work we have done in cultivating a safe and trusting classroom where students feel heard and accepted. It’s why we chose a difficult, and often thankless job- and yet still show up every day with a smile, love and compassion for the kids we get to work with.

Colorado Association of Middle Level Education


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